It’s so easy to forget what it’s like to be a kid. Even as a teacher surrounded by them, I am constantly reminded how adults can forget the pain of things like the end of summer vacation. No matter how hard we try to make school fun, it’s hard to compete against the freedom and unpredictability of summer. When those first few signs that classes are about to begin start appearing, a pall falls over even the happiest of students. This year, it happened in late July as I was watching Big Brother on CBS. A George Orwell fan, I’d stumbled across the show thinking it would reference 1984, and instead I’d fallen down the rabbit hole of reality television at its cattiest. Right in the middle of my weekly fix (I’m not proud), Walmart came on to utter the summertime blasphemy feared most by children: the dreaded “Back to School Sale.”
As a kid, these commercials were nails scraping across the chalkboard of my summer vacation, the clammy hand of mortality resting on what remained of my carefree days. After those first few advertisements for school supplies appeared, my friends and I viewed everything through the prism of our impending imprisonment, a kind of doomsday clock that loomed large over each passing day. On the other hand, our parents seemed to giddily count down the days as if anticipating parole.
None of the four seasons has such a clear starting line as autumn in America: regardless of what the calendar says, children know summer ends the minute the yellow bus stops on their street. The fall season used to be the one time kids never attended classes because they had to help with the harvest; now it marks the inevitable return of the ten-month planting season of academia. This year Stratford students begin school on August 30th, with their teachers reporting five days earlier to prepare the soil.
In the last two weeks, Stratford has been alive with preparations for the Big Day. In late August, even Staples resembles the birthday room at the Discovery Zone as kids bounce around the aisles in search of the perfect notebook. Parents perform subtle acts of bribery to ease the sting: I know you don’t like math, but this calculator has a picture of Dora the Explorer. Shopping for school supplies is at once horrifying and exciting for reluctant learners: only the love for my brand new Harlem Globetrotters lunchbox managed to pull me from my mourning bed and off to the bus stop on that first day of school.
From my perch on the library bench this week I see the mad dashes of harried eighth graders rushing to the references desk in the hope that suggested summer reading books haven’t all been taken out. I overhear two of them indulging in a little summer arithmetic: “We’re expected to read 8-10 books, but we only have to complete the reading questions for two of them. With six days left, that means…” Meanwhile, the mandated summer math packets pop up like Black-Eyed Susans on the sands of Long Beach as clusters of teens put the finishing touches on both their tans and algebraic equations.
Also in evidence are the dizzying effects of a parental grapevine that’s in full bloom: “What have you heard about Ms. Record for Physics?” one concerned father asks a neighbor at the deli counter of the Pickle Barrel. Talk quickly turns to plans being made for their free time now that the kids are back at school. “I might even get to a day game at Yankee Stadium,” he adds. Off to his side, his young son glares up at him.
As I placed my order, I could see myself in this youngster. I’m sure he feels the same sense of betrayal at how adults can so callously discuss the Death of Fun right in front of them. So I was as disappointed as anyone when it slipped out, completely by accident, as I chatted with his father. “Did you see that Irene Cornish wrote the school day is going to be fifteen minutes longer this year?” Now his kid was glaring at me.
If that young man happens to read this, please forgive me; sometimes we just forget. I hope everyone has a happy and healthy start to the new academic year.